Fighting spirits

Ang Lee’s martial arts romance brings cinemagic back to the screen.

In the cult of directors — those auteurs who construct the dreams of moviegoers — Ang Lee is a soft-spoken anomaly, quietly shattering expectations and raising the bar for cinematic poetry with each film. Lee was born in Taiwan but lives in America, and his films, from the modest Pushing Hands to the lush Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, have been about people living in two worlds. Without any show-off bluster, Lee quietly wields a razor-sharp knife, which he uses with gentle precision to dissect characters living with divided hearts.

That knife might resemble the ornate Green Destiny sword which has been the property of warrior Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat) in ancient China. Li has decided to give up the Green Destiny and the way of life it represents, and entrusts Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) with its transport to Beijing. The sword is stolen, an event which triggers a series of encounters — and dazzling martial arts battles — which bring old grudges to the forefront.

While Crouching Tiger, adapted from a novel by Wang Du Lu, is based on traditional Chinese storytelling, there’s also something very Western about the film — Western not only in hemisphere, but in genre. Li is like an aging gunfighter ready to hang up his weapons, only to be faced with the consequences of his past actions. The unrequited love of Li and Shu Lien, marked by restraint, obedience and obligation, is contrasted with the wildly romantic courtship of Jen (Zhang Ziyi), the headstrong daughter of a governor, and the bandit Lo (Chang Chen), which is sparked during a desert ambush. The playful courtship of Jen and Lo commences on horseback and, as they seem to fly across the sunset-colored terrain, Lee uses their bold actions, their youthful energy, to express the Wild West as a psychic locale of liberation and freedom from constraints. What they can’t fully escape is, in a sense, their fate. But this doesn’t come via a divine being, but the vengeance of Jen’s mentor, Jade Fox (Cheng Pei Pei).

In the mythic landscape of Crouching Tiger, the supernatural reigns supreme, and fans of Hong Kong fare such as Tsui Hark’s Chinese Ghost Story will find much of this film familiar — but Lee once again inverts genre expectations by focusing on the three generations of women warriors. An embittered Jade, denied official martial arts training, becomes a fighter fueled by anger, not honor. The quiet, dignified Shu Lien and the bold, forceful Jen are expert at combat, but strikingly different in their backgrounds and beliefs. Jen is a wild child, anxious to show off her skills, while Shu Lien has found serenity by accepting the order of things.

Here, Lee begins with the mind (an exiled child’s idea of old China), adds the body (magnificent locations, remarkable actors, phenomenal action sequences) and ends up with a film about the spirit. No one makes the intangible more real than Ang Lee, who uses film to express that which can’t be seen.

Read Air Wars in Old China," written by MT arts editor George Tysh -- the feature discusses director Ang Lee's blending of ancient and progressive ideas in the romantic martial arts adventure, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

E-mail Serena Donadoni at [email protected].

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